Saturday, August 15, 2009

WILL BJP'S DROOPING LOTUS BLOOM AGAIN?

Is the BJP being driven by a strong sense of history to repeat its past performance in the next general elections? That it is, is not in doubt. What is in serious doubt is which previous result it wants to beat. Does it want to better the 183 seats that it won in 1999 or is it desperate to get less than the two that it did in 1984? All indications are that the members of caucus that has taken control of the party have decided that they would rather take the party down than accept responsibility and take themselves out.

Despite the electoral disaster, the three men who should have gracefully stepped aside straightaway have actually dug their heels in hard, to prevent anyone from uprooting them from their positions of power and authority. LK Advani continues as the supreme leader of the party, after a perfunctory offer to step down. Rajnath Singh continues to be party President after completing the formality of saying that he accepts responsibility for the defeat. Above all, Arun Jaitley, the master strategist who had never failed to claim credit whenever the party had done well in any previous election that he was responsible for, has simply refused to shoulder the blame this time. Conveniently citing the principal of "collective responsibility", he has actually got himself a promotion instead!

Although these leaders are telling everyone that there are no full stops in politics, and Advani wants to go on another rath yatra to tell party workers that in this defeat is an opportunity , and that he is just the guy who can see and exploit it, they are making other heads roll.

The first fall guy that the caucus found a couple of months back was Uttarakhand Chief Minister BC Khanduri, an honest man of outstanding credentials, who was forced to resign from his job, despite having done well as CM, ostensibly because the BJP did badly in that state. To make matters worse, he was replaced by Ramesh Pokhriyal who does not carry as good an image among the people, to say the least.

The axe has now fallen again. And this time the victim is Vasundhara Raje, former Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Rajnath Singh wants her out, her supporters want her to stay and LK Advani does not know what to do. 57 MLAs who owe allegiance to her have returned to Jaipur without being able to meet the BJP supremo. But the battle is not over yet. The BJP lost the Assembly elections not due to the performance of her government but because powerful leaders of the BJP itself worked over time to ensure her and thereby the party's defeat. That momentum, quite naturally, showed in the results of the Lok Sabha elections too. Now, the caucus is demanding her head.

Vasundhara Raje is one of the few modern faces of the BJP. Plus she is a woman who has shown that she has it in her to deliver as CM. How many BJP leaders can make such a claim? Sushma Swaraj, the other woman leader who has been promoted after the electoral debacle, has serious limitations, some of which will not endear her to the vast and growing Indian middle class. Besides, she is neither a Mayawati nor a Sonia Gandhi who can deliver votes for the BJP across India, or become PM at some stage. On the other hand, Vasundhara Raje, whichever way you look at it, is the one face that the BJP must project as a tall leader, if it is serious about having any chance in the next general elections. She is perhaps the only woman leader in the BJP who can blunt the edge of the two ladies mentioned above, if she is utilised properly over the next few years.

Is that why she is under attack? Are the few leaders who have hijacked the BJP out to make sure that there is no threat to their continuance as the only faces, the only leaders of the party? Is that not why BC Khanduri has been sidelined? Is not Narendra Modi also in their sights, to be taken out at the right time, just as it seems Jaswant Singh was before the elections? Remember how Advani conveniently washed his hands off the decision of Jaswant Singh to go to Kandahar to bring the hostages back, and let the Congress and the media tear into him without any justification whatsoever? Have not Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie been brushed aside for similar reasons?

You would have hardly ever seen Lal Krishna Advani smile freely in front of the cameras, no matter what the good news. But, a couple of days back, he just could not stop himself from baring his sparkling and perfect teeth. And what was the great news that was responsible for it? It was Sushma Swaraj telling India that Advani would remain Leader of the Opposition for five years! That picture of the 81 year old "mazboot neta" of the "nirnayak sarkar" that the people of India had rejected in May this year, told the sad story of what has fundamentally gone wrong with the BJP.

Are Advani and the party out of their minds to even think of going in for the next elections under an 85 year old man?

Whatever may be the inner story to which, like most Indians, I am not privy, the harsh fact is that the BJP is now appearing to the ordinary Indian to be a party without an idea, what to talk of ideology and idealism. In essence, the party looks no more more than a badly smudged copy of the very Congress that it used to proudly claim it was "different" from. As a direct result of this debilitating metamorphosis, the greatest weakness of the Congress - dynastic succession - has become the USP that is making it look better than the BJP. The voter at least knows where the power lies now and will in future, for better or worse. He knows whom he is to vote for or against. There are no pretenders to confuse him or put him off.

In sharp contrast, the BJP, which could once boast of being a truly democratic party with many tall leaders of impeccable integrity, vision and competence, is now hostage to a few small leaders who have become bigger than the party. Since they have been found out for what they really are, a war for control of the party has begun. Copying the strategy that was adopted by Indira Gandhi to become the unquestioned leader of the Congress, the few who have seized control of the party have begun to systematically sideline real leaders who can pose a threat to them in future.

Unfortunately, the BJP does not have a centripetal force towards which other leaders as well the nation can be successfully drawn. That is the fatal flaw that will lead to uglier and uglier scenes being played out over the next few years, if the caucus is not uprooted completely. The longer it remains in control, the more the damage there will be to the party. As a result, the Congress, without doing anything at all, will gain and the supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family will start looking more and more like a blessing rather than the black spot that it is on India's democracy.

How many self-goals can one of the two leading national parties keep scoring without getting mauled? As things stand now, paradoxically the only way things can get any better for the BJP is if the party performs poorly in the Assembly elections that are due to be held in the next three years or so. How many fall guys can the caucus keep finding while remaining Teflon-coated itself? It is not the equivalent of the Nehru-Gandhi family without which the BJP will lose its identity.

Removal of the coterie that controls the BJP is vital if the party wants to have any realistic hope of seeing its Lotus bloom in New Delhi in 2014 and/or later. The sooner the party and the RSS face up to this harsh truth, and make way for leaders like Raje, Khanduri, Modi, Yediurappa etc to take centre stage, the better it is for the party and perhaps even for India. Will that happen anytime soon?

I don't know why, but images of a very reluctant Bhutto being forcibly dragged to the gallows are appearing in my mind. No one is going to give up power easily. He will have to be evicted by force. Unless that is done, the once magnificient warship called BJP may well find itself in Alang.